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Madrid History and Recommended Books


Madrid history is long and complicated, which is why the city is such an intriguing place to visit. From starting out as a Muslim settlement to picking up the pieces following the Spanish Civil War, the capital city has been through a lot and the diversity of local culture, variety of historical architecture and wonderfully divergent artwork are all proof of that.

Madrid history

The city was originally called Mayrit (or Magerit) when it was founded by the emir Muhammad at the end of the ninth century. Up until that point, Toledo had been the main Spanish city, but Madrid was slowly gaining importance and growing into a rival. During Spain’s Christian re-conquest, Madrid passed between the hands of the Muslims and Christians several times, resulting in the melting pot of cultures which characterizes the city today.

In 1083, King Alfonso established Madrid as we know it today and the following year, the royal court and parliament occupied the city. Despite being popular with royalty, medieval Madrid remained incredibly poor and small. So much so that one writer in the 15th century wrote, “in Madrid there is nothing except what you bring with you”.

When Felipe II took to the throne in 1556, Madrid was surrounded by walls with 130 towers and six stone gates. Despite these fortifications being mostly for show, Felipe II still named Madrid the capital of Spain in 1561.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Madrid really started to shine and become a real capital. At this time, the city was home to 175,000 people, making it the fifth largest in Europe. From 1759 to 1788, Carlos III cleaned up the city, oversaw the completion of the Palacio Real and inaugurated the Royal Botanical Garden, earning himself the title of the best “mayor” Madrid has ever known.

The 18th was a period in Madrid history of great modernization. New city gates, bridges and buildings began springing up all over the city and the Palacio Real was constructed. Napoleon seized control of Spain in the early 19th century and following his defeat, the entire country saw a major decline leading up to the formation of First Spanish Republic.

The Second Spanish Republic began in 1931 and ended in 1936 after the Spanish Civil War, when Madrid suffered unbelievable damage. Things got worse in 1939 when General Franco assumed control of the country, although he did succeed in expanding the city and increasing its importance.

Following Franco’s death in 1975, King Juan Carlos I guided Spain back to democracy and Madrid quickly became the country’s cultural center, bursting with liberal music, film and art. Despite the European debt crisis which greatly affected the city in 2009, Madrid remains a dynamic place with an energetic, upbeat attitude.

Recommended books related to Madrid history

Whether you want to learn more about Madrid history or just want to inspire yourself for your upcoming trip, here are some highly-recommended books about the city.

Leaving the Atocha Station A fascinating novel that follows a young American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, Leaving the Atocha Station delves into the poet’s struggles he experiences when it comes to the language barrier, politics and relationships. The book is loaded with Madrid as seen from an expat’s view, providing a unique insight with lots of insider info.

Winter in Madrid: A Novel This international best-selling title set in post-Civil War Spain is about a British man sent to Madrid to be a spy and win over the trust of an old school friend turned shady business man. Although the story is fictional, many parts are based on real-life historical events.

The Sun Also Rises Written by famous Madrid lover Ernest Hemingway about English-speaking expats traveling from Paris to Spain, The Sun Also Rises features many important Madrid landmarks, including Botín (the oldest restaurant in the world) and the Westin Palace Hotel.

101 Coolest Things to Do in Madrid From street food stalls to Michelin star restaurants, from local fiestas to huge music festivals, from famous attractions to unusual off-the-beaten-track places to visit, this Madrid guide book has got everything you need to have an amazing time in Madrid.